Jess Gillam at Ryedale Festival 2021

Jess Gillam and the Jess Gillam Ensemble (Roberts Balanas and Michael Jones on violin, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, Gabriella Swallow on cello, Sam Becker on bass, percussionist Elsa Bradley and pianist Leif Kaner-Lidstrom) took to the stage in St Peter’s Church, Norton in Malton, North Yorkshire yesterday for two performances featuring music from Decca 2020 release Time plus an exhilherating work by Gillam’s saxophone teacher John Harle, ‘Flare’.

I’ve written before about how Gillam’s ‘Time’ recorded weeks before the first UK lockdown, ended up being something I listened to time and time again in the months that followed.

So much, in fact, that come the live performance in glorious 3D sound on Thursday of Thomas Yorke’s Suspirium it was almost too much to bear – a musical reminder of a time when those of us with empathy looked on the world and wondered what the hell was going on and kept on asking when it would end.

Suspirium, like John Metcalf’s arrangement of Bjork’s ‘Venus as a Boy’ underlined what a considerable achievement Gillam’s work on Time really is – not only is it a cracking album from beginning to end, but hear it in the same physical space and it takes on a whole other form.

The “kind characters and generous people” Jess introduced on stage with her are called upon to play resourcefully, clapping, banging, and scraping in addition to the more conventional up and down bows.

Gillam bounces around in the middle communicating with her peers, passionate leadership without pretension. From time to time members of the group look and smile at one another connecting over a shared sequence that tickles. Infectious smiles are exchanged, observed by the distanced masked audience. And at the beginning of John Metcalf’s ravishing arrangement of Sakamoto’s ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’, blissful pizzicato from Gabriella Swallow – notes that bounce around the church like they’ve suddenly learned themselves that restrictions have been eased.

John Harle’s ‘Flare’ highlights the new kind of classical music that really isn’t being written about nor celebrated anywhere near enough. It’s a style that proudly draws on multiple influences and genres. It’s a style that refuses to revere. It’s not light nor easy (just look at what Harle demands of the players). It’s not crossover. Nor is it imitative. This new classical, as demonstrated in Harle’s ‘Flare’ is a glorious shimmering colourful celebration of music, here brought to life by an energetic ensemble.

Reference should also be made to what could so easily be overlooked in amongst all of this loveliness: Jess Gillam’s technique is remarkable. As a wind player myself I don’t understand how such a solid unwavering column of air can support a melodic line without even a hint of air escaping where her mouth meets the mouthpiece of the instrument she’s playing. The tone is round and firm. It caresses. It’s never shrill. It’s consistent too. Never a duff moment. The mind boggles.

Jess Gillam appears with an almost identical programme at Snape Maltings on 25th August.

Jess Gillam receives Master of Performance from Guildhall School of Music and Drama

I never especially enjoyed my graduation day. Twenty-seven years ago, me and my parents journeyed from Suffolk for the late morning ceremony. I’d lost the tickets. I was also reeling from having to return to post-University life, back in my old bedroom, resentful of my suddenly curtailed freedoms.

The ceremony saw me and my peers processing up to the stage in the Great Hall to shake hands with a person we’d never seen before, look out on a see of proud faces, before walking off the other side and walking past the congregation.

It felt like a ramshackle experience, one everyone assuming would be full of pomp. An hour or so later we handed back our gowns and mortarboards, exchanged goodbyes with friends and headed off.

All this is nothing in comparison to what this year’s music graduates have endured: a year of interrupted tuition, distanced learning, and nothing but practise. And to top it all they didn’t get the chance of closure with a formal ceremony.

Undeterred, saxophonist Jess Gillam donned her gown and mortarboard after ‘receiving’ (presumably in the post) her Masters of Performance from Guildhall School of Music and Drama during the conservatoire’s virtual graduation day on Friday 26 March 2021..

After extended studies with her teacher-composer and (its fair to say) mentor John Harle, Gillam’s graduation bookends the COVID year during which her second album release Time ended-up being the idea soundtrack for a year misaligned experiences.

Jess Gillam's Virtual Scratch Orchestra Logo

Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra set to record Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride

News this week that Jess Gillam is launching another lockdown virtual scratch orchestra brought a smile to my face.

As role models go Gillam’s activity throughout 2020 in response to COVID has been impressive, acting as a beacon for young musicians and amateurs alike.

That along with her obvious industry, determination and spirit, not only maintains Gillam in the education and entertainment worlds, but also injects a little bit of hope and sparkle at a time when its needed most. The Let it Be mashup from a few weeks ago, even if you assume the lockdown style won’t be compelling on a first glimpse, does tickle the tear ducts come the final chorus.

Her latest project calls on musicians across the world to submit video recordings of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride using music downloaded from the Virtual Scratch Orchestra website. All audio will be used in the final mashup, along with some of the video.

Set against the global pandemic and the economic crisis its brought about, Gillam’s marketing narrative in 2020 has shaken off the initial record-label fuelled contrivance it seemed to have pre-COVID. Her education work makes her relevant and relatable, just by virtue of it being needed and appreciated right now.

This combined with her second album released this year – Time – featuring a carefully selected running order of music suited to her instrument illustrates Gillam’s increasing maturity as a musician and an educator.

For more information on Jess Gillam’s third Virtual Scratch Orchestra visit her website.

Viability and Jess Gillam’s Decca Release

Talk of viable jobs in the mainstream media today triggered my inner lefty. Or was it my inner liberal? I’m still not clear whether advocating the arts makes me a lefty or a liberal. Either way, the word was a trigger word deliberately placed in press releases, speeches and ‘reports’ intended to enflame and enrage.

Job done. It does enrage. But if you’re a bigger person, you’ll find a way to overlook it. The next six months (which I’m absolutely convinced will be extended by another six months in March 2021) present themselves as a grind. Yet another cross country run we have to set out on. We know we’ll complete it but dear God it seems like a struggle to get motivated right now.

The question that looms large is what story to tell of this period? Do we celebrate those who defy expectation and mount the concerts they can given the mitigations? Do we spotlight those for whom live music-making isn’t just their bread and butter but their sense of being, using this as evidence of the arts unshakeable spirit to rise up like a Phoenix (in itself a reflection of the story I tell to myself about myself)? Or is it important to highlight how the state-funded arts activity is systematically being destroyed? If one does the former does one risk down-playing the latter?

I don’t know the answer, other than the questions themselves help shape some editorial goals in the coming months. And in a weird way, I’m oddly grateful that curious editorial can be dug our from this particular shitheap.

All this whilst listening to Jess Gillam’s much-anticipated (by which I mean much-hyped) new album on Decca. The build-up has been relentless perhaps even never-ending. It might even have risked damaging the end product.

As it happens, it didn’t. This is a carefully curated selection of tracks drawing a bounty of new (to a few) composing names. The overarching mood is contemplative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking whilst avoiding the usual preponderance naval-gazing bollocks. Anna Meredith’s track in particular is not only well-placed – a kind of symphony-esque pivot point – but also balm for the soul right now.

Listen out for the plucked bass in various tracks too. It’s tactile. Tidy. Pleasing.

If you’re in search of some montage music to manage you through this weird time, this is the place to start.

James Ehnes at the BBC Proms playing Britten's Violin Concerto

BBC Proms 2019 / 3 – Dvorak on TV, Ehnes’ Britten on the radio, and the burning sensation of shame

I’m journalling my Proms season this year. Not necessarily day to day. More documenting my experience of it and the thoughts that arise from it. The numbering I use in the titles refers to the posts rather than a direct reference to the Prom number.

Ehnes plays Britten

I remember seeing Ehnes play something or other in Verbier Church a few years back. What I loved about his solo performance was his unpretentiousness – a charming, effortlessly calm and direct style of communication that made me go slightly weak at the knees.

(By way of comparison Finn Pekka Kuusisto achieves a similarly unequivocal level of ‘hotness’ when I’ve seen him play.)

That I was reminded of Ehnes’ on-stage charisma when I listened to Britten’s Violin Concerto points to the fine indeterminate details of a musicians expression that have the power to trigger memories. Defining indescribable characteristics that have the potential to momentarily paralyse the listener in near-ecstasy.

Well, maybe near-ecstasy is gilding the lily somewhat. But bloody hell the Britten was brilliant. Meaty, solid, anguished and, above all else, an evocative trigger of ‘home’ on the east coast of Suffolk. On a second listen I hear a romantic approach to the candenza which I rather like. The strings of the orchestra also sounded pretty good too – especially in the Shostakovich-esque Passacaglia. Very strong Royal Academy of Music and Julliard School. Nice work.

Listening to the concert on the radio (in the kitchen, on the oil-spattered digital radio) I had my first pang of ‘I really ought to be there’ of the season. This wasn’t so much ‘fear of missing out’, as ‘fear of missing the point of the season’. A sudden realisation dawned. I seem to spend so much of my time pedalling around, talking to people, writing about stuff in order to generate work, that I don’t actually set aside time to experience the thing that I write about. And that means I miss out on the thing I love. I need to build some time in.

Another tweet (mine this time)

Eagle-eyed individuals will recall I tweeted about the BBC Symphony’s principal oboist using a shot of the considerable impact his embouchure has on his cheek muscles. This appeared at first to have been received well by nearly all. One or two responded with ‘he played so well though,’ leading to me to conclude that some thought I was ridiculing the chap. I clarified in typical Jon Jacob fashion. Things escalated when another oboist, revealing her connection with the subject of the image (his partner), commenting on how she hoped Twitter could be a nicer place, confirming in my mind that yes, it has been interpreted as me having a dig. Phoned a friend for context, held an executive board meeting with myself then deleted the tweet.

Some thoughts arise.

My intent was sound, respectful and fun. That other professional musicians (high voluting ones too) ‘liked’ the tweet confirmed that most others recognised the intent.

The sense of shame that has arisen since deleting the tweet burns. This I consider a good thing to an extent. It demonstrates that I’m not a cold-hearted bastard and, given that I’m talking about here, a reminder for me that valuable thinking and actions emerge from confronting things which others might feel embarrassed about.

Why the sense of shame? The timing was interesting, hot on the heels of the Phase Eight thing last week, you’d think I’d have foreseen all reactions and thought twice. The orchestral world is small than a bands scale on stage might lead you to believe. And whilst I don’t derive much if any revenue from the classical music world, the idea that me (self-proclaimed advocate) ends up pissing off the world I seek to champion seemed (and still does seem) uncomfortably possible.

But it got me thinking, had the picture been of a brass player would the reaction have been unequivocally different. If it had been a percussionist displaying a similar feat of technical agility, might some have seen it as a dig?

Dvorak Violin Concerto on TV

One of the big ‘innovations’ this year as trumpeted (boom) by the BBC press team has been the inclusion of Jess Gillam as a new presenter in the Proms TV lineup. I’m not entirely sure this is an innovation driven by independent TV production company Livewire or whether its something Jess’ record label Decca have been keen to see happen (see earlier post for an explanation).

Certainly, Jess being called out as ‘the youngest presenter on Radio 3’ by Controller Alan Davey when she took on This Classical Life, makes her inclusion at the Proms less innovative and more of an inevitable consequence of a strategy designed to make classical music more appealing to a young(ish) audience.

As it’s her first appearance, it made sense that Katie Derham held onto the reins, introducing the newcomer to the regular(ish) audience. But there were times when the presence of two hosts made things feel a little cumbersome – in the same way that two news anchors swapping delivery sentence and sentence makes for a disjointed viewer experience. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of on-screen rapport between them (note – on-screen rapport is different from how they might be off-camera, so I’m not being a bitch here in case anyone screams) and the mismatch of styles of delivery (inevitable given Jess’s significant lack of experience) highlighted the presence of the script. Two hosts speaking to one interviewee looked a little strange, it has to be said. A sledgehammer to crack a nut, if you will.

There are some nice touches. I do really like the presenter-less talent-led introductions, this evening given by Joshua Bell. They’re natural, straight-forward and pleasingly authentic.

The introductions to works given by the pundit – a spoken programme note – are useful though their success depends solely on limiting the information and maximising the delivery. Not an easy ask at all, but for me worth sticking with. It needs a consummate broadcaster able to deliver a rich script by combining warmth and knowledge.

The opening sequence to the broadcast is marvellous. It does a great deal in an extremely short space of time to settle my nerves and set the tone.

Squeezing classical out of classical music

In the mad dash to make classical music more ‘appealing’ to more people, the representation of youth is a priority for record labels. But is that a good thing?

I attended the Decca Summer Drinks ‘thing’ last night in Central London. I appreciated the invite. I appreciated the wine. I appreciated the balloons. I was less keen on the lack of AC in the main performance ‘space’. But you know, free wine.

We heard from Isata Kanneh-Mason on piano (playing Clara Schumann) and from Milos on Gee-Tar with accompanying septet previewing his new release featuring arrangements of Sound of Silence and a Portishead track.

Yes. That’s right. Simon and Garfunkel and Portishead.

This in amongst a couple of promos featuring Decca Classics’ illustrious past.

It was a confused affair. At least I was confused. On the one hand Decca are keen to celebrate their archive. On the other hand they’re even more keen to underline their commitment to diversity, youth, and accessibility.

In doing so, I wonder whether someone at Universal Music/Decca HQ is deliberately or inadvertently overlooking a truism.

Decca’s present-day lead signings are undoubtedly talented but painfully young. As an audience member (and according to some an ‘influential commentator on the subject’) I don’t buy in to what that new talent offers. That’s not to say I don’t believe that Isata, Sheku, and Jess Gilliam will be powerful forces in the classical music world. Rather, it’s that I recognise that they are at the beginning of their careers. And yet it sometimes feels (as it did last night) as though those artists are at the pinnacle of them.

And as lovely as Milos absolutely is, and as striking as his snazzy shirt was last night, I do think releasing an album of pop songs arranged for septet and acoustic guitar basically puts him on the same level as Mantovani.

There’s nothing wrong with anyone who wants to listen to that, of course. Any rabble rousers out there who get a whiff of snobbery or elitism on my part can put down their arms.

The irony is that hearing Milos playing Portishead last night, prompted me to head back to the considerably more satisfying original.

It just got me thinking. Is this what Milos had hoped for when he studied his art? And is this what record industry executives really think people like me actually want?

Or is it worse than that?

Is it the case that record industry execs don’t actually care what I and people like me think?